SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols

With season 41 of Survivor delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, EW is reaching back into the reality show's past. We sent a Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire to a batch of former players to fill out with their thoughts about their time on the show as well as updates on what they've been up to since. Each weekday, EW will post the answers from a different player.

Why wait for a tribe swap? That was Gillian Larson's attitude when she saw the vote wasn't going her way on day 6 of Survivor: Gabon. So once Gillian deemed that she was the one in the tribe whose torch was about to be snuffed, she did what any reasonable player would do — she left the tribe.

"I took the [boat] out by myself to see if I could find the other tribe somewhere around the lake to be the first Survivor to defect to the other side!" says Gillian. Of course, she was not alone in her attempt at an unsanctioned mutiny. "Production followed me in their boat," Gillian explains. "So I presume if I had found the other tribe, they would have taken me back! I paddled around for about two hours and gave up, as it was Tribal Council time."

Time was up for Gillian in her attempt to defect, and time was also up for her in the game, as she was voted out that night. But if there is someone who has found a way to make the most out of only six days in the game, it's Gillian Larson. In her Quarantine Questionnaire, the exuberant 74-year-old explains how she has extended her brief stay on reality television into a 13-year journey (and counting).

Survivor- Gillian Larson
Gillian Larson on 'Survivor: Gabon'
| Credit: Monty Brinton/CBS

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you've been up to since appearing on Survivor.

GILLIAN LARSON: I was so bummed my Survivor was not what I had hoped for, but on day 2 in Ponderosa I was given an unexpected gift! This gift was the right attitude to think why I had applied for eight years with 20 applications and was selected at 61. 

I was training for a 60-mile walk when I got home. so I made use of my five weeks by walking in the jungle, beach, and area we were in for five hours a day and came up with two ideas. One was to create a fundraising event including other reality TV stars to raise funds for our local cancer resource center and promote our town, Temecula. The other was to take my story of belief in oneself, persistence, and how to dream big and to do motivational speaking.

I created Reality Rally in the Gabon jungle, and over the past 12 years, over 450 or so TV stars from 46 reality TV shows have attended and helped raise those funds. We have more than 120 sponsors, a key group of production team volunteers, and 400 weekend volunteers, and we have raised over half a million dollars for Michelle's Place Cancer Resource Center. I myself and all who make our event happen are volunteers. We do not make a dime for ourselves. The reality stars who attend are required to raise funds to attend as it is a fundraiser, not just a crazy fun weekend.

Reality Rally is a three-day unique Temecula signature event specifically designed for the public to meet reality stars and have a lot of fun raising funds. We have produced the event for nine years, and sadly COVID cancelled years 10 and 11. We will be back in May 2022, we hope.

I have also done over 480 speaking engagement to corporations, schools, hospitals, service groups, and more, sharing my Survivor experience, but more importantly my motto of "Dream it, believe it, prepare for it, and DO IT!"

Survivor opened so many doors to incredible opportunities and experiences, which is what I call the "gift of Survivor." I hosted Gary Sinese when I organized the Color of Courage 5k color run for his organization. I have collaborated with the American Reality TV Awards for the past eight years, and I was honored to receive their Humanitarian Award seven years ago.

I was also a guest on Maria Menounos' AfterBuzz TV show for Survivor quite a few times to watch and comment on the episode, and I have been a celebrity judge for several talent shows, dog shows, surfing dog contests, barista and pastry chef contests, a fashion show judge, a pageant judge, our Fourth of July parade judge, and I was the red carpet host at a charity event, to name a few.

Reality Rally was part of the Temecula Fourth of July parade for four years. I blogged for Canadian TV Guide for Survivor: Tocantins with recaps of every episode, and I have attended quite a lot of other reality star fundraiser events to chat with fans and raise funds for their charity. I have been interviewed on innumerable podcasts to encourage others to reach out and be the best they can be. Reality Rally and I personally have been nominated for many awards, and we and I have won 14 of them for all I have been doing after Survivor.

All of what I do is to be of benefit to others, and what I and we have achieved is because we work as a team to make things happen. Survivor was the catalyst that I have run with, and none for personal gain. I watch a lot of reality shows to seek out new attendees for Reality Rally and find them on social media. I reach out to fans as often as I can and always respond to their requests. I was (and am) a fan and would have loved hearing from a Survivor. The show would not go on without fans.

The biggest blessing in my life pre- and post-Survivor is my family. My husband of 52 years, my three married daughters, and grandkids ranging from 20 to 8. We are very close and live life, love life, and celebrate life as a family in so many ways. The other blessing Survivor brought me is all the amazing and incredible people I have met doing what I do.

What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?

My proudest moment was being selected after so many years and seeing Jeff announce "Welcome to Survivor: Gabon…" and I was there. That has extended to hundreds of moments over the past 13 years knowing I have had the opportunity to maximize my Survivor opportunity to make a difference in the lives of so many in so many ways as indicated above.

What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experience?

Choosing Crystal Cox for our tribe in our startoff schoolyard pick. From the moment I knew we were going to Gabon, I thought it would be a bigger challenge for me than the ocean. I am excellent in water, but land?! After all, I was 61, with a leaky bladder from childbirths! I knew going into Survivor that Crystal was a gold medal runner, and running is not one of my strengths so I needed a gold medal runner on my tribe, and thought she would be the best complement to our tribe as a runner. I also hoped for someone with an Olympian spirit, capability, passion, and drive normally an Olympian has.

My other choice would have been "the really cute guy" of Marcus. That may have been so much better, as my tribe certainly was a very strange grouping as each person picked then chose their choice. Perhaps it was good TV, but not for my game! My other regret is offering Crystal my shirt.

I also regret always sounding so happy and positive, which is my normal self. That wasn't how I was really feeling, and it clearly rubbed my tribe the wrong way. All my tribe stood for was like Kryptonite to me, sucked my spirit dry, and I had to feed my spirit regularly feeling grateful for the amazing opportunity to have been chosen and revel in all it meant. Little did I know that value that would follow.

Another regret, which is out of my control, is thinking people may have thought I was useless based on my edit and second boot. One of my goals was to show that anyone is capable despite one's age, and I was 61 representing older women and that we are privileged in the USA to go for anything we want to, and I have.

Survivor: Gabon - Earth's Last Eden
The cast of 'Survivor: Gabon'
| Credit: Monty Brinton/CBS

What's something that will blow fans' minds that happened out there in your season but never made it to TV?

I have so many backstories, but here are a few. One day when I am able to publish my book, fans can see so much more that didn't make it in editing. 

* Bob Crowley could have been badly injured, if not killed. Instead, thank goodness he won. We were being given instructions on that big ball-rolling challenge when one of my tribemates said, "Lets smash our ball into theirs and knock it way off course." Jeff heard and replied to just keep our minds on pushing our ball in hopes to win, as we are already pretty useless. I was worried this would still be attempted, so I suggested Susie and I run on the outside and steady the ball at the stops while the stronger younger people push. My intention was to watch the other tribe's ball as I ran. We got to the top of one little hill and someone said, "Now let's push it into their ball." I looked towards their ball, and Bob and Kelly were standing at the back holding their ball, and our ball was coming straight for them. I tried pushing our ball away and Randy yelled at me to get out of the way, but we were too close so I yelled, "Watch out!" to them and they jumped away. We all saw what a crash there was when the balls collided, but Bob and Kelly were safe.

* Collecting elephant dung was to burn to keep biting insects away, as it is nature's repellant used by many populations living in that kind of environment and bug bites are a huge problem on Survivor. I asked if any of my tribe wanted to come with me to collect dung. Horrified, they all declined, which was part of my plan. I knew Survivor might hide clues, etc., so did not want anyone coming with me as went searching!

* Matty and I were the only two who could take the mekoro boat out that was in camp without dunking out. GC and Kenny did learn how to stay upright. The day I was not able to get Randy into my voting bloc of Susie, Dan, Matty, and myself to vote Crystal or Kenny out, I knew I would be voted out as "my bloc" said they didn't want to go for them without a majority. So I took the mekoro out by myself to see if I could find the other tribe somewhere around the lake to be the first Survivor to defect to the other side! Production followed me in their boat, so I presume if I had found the other tribe, they would have taken me back! I paddled around for about two hours and gave up, as it was Tribal Council time. 

* I found a full elephant carcass in the jungle, so I brought it into camp. I made two chairs out of the scapula and sternum and a chair with the skull. I made the fire ring out of the femur and lower leg bones and used the top cervical bone for my pillow. Lots of the scenes show my bone furniture with my tribe using it and the fire ring of bones. 

* I found out that I had beaten Crystal, the Olympian, in the first challenge up that hill. I thought I was dead last as I was concentrating on getting to the top. When I saw the show, I was way ahead of Crystal, and she, Susie, and I needed a lot of pushing. I was so impressed that Dan and Matty stayed back to really help us and I thought, "Wow, now that is caring and teamwork." Perhaps that is why Crystal was so offhand to me in camp… she didn't like being beaten by a 61-year-old. She kept pushing for me to be booted after that, and again, perhaps I beat her in the first challenge, and maybe I would again.

* Michelle kept talking about how cold she was, so I had tried to make a sensible sleeping arrangement in the hut to hopefully let her be a little warmer at night if she was in the middle of everyone.

* I chopped and gathered 80 percent of the firewood. Made the fires, and Susie and I boiled the water and put it in the canteen when it was cooled. It took approximately two hours to get water to be drinkable.

* The night of first Tribal Council, I thought we might get a flint, so I made sure all "my" fire-making items were ready: a bowl of kindling, small to biggest sticks, and the tree resin which is highly flammable, but I hid the machete and didn't fill the pot with water on purpose! So far I had done everything for a fire while others did nothing, so I wanted them to "look for the machete," which they did in a frantic search when we got back with a flint. Smiling, I watched as they fumbled around in the dark, and eventually I pretended I just found it! When fire was eventually started after many attempts by Kenny and GC, they looked for the pot of water. Empty! I had made a torch out of a forked stick and a little pot filled with resin and led the way to the lake to get water with my torch! 

* I stood near the torches regularly to try and get some beads off it to make an idol with the resin I found, but every time production was watching me and shook their heads at me! I pretended I was just interested in the design! I did, however, find a little string of beads on the ground which may have fallen off a torch, which I hid, but others had seen it and asked if anyone had seen it, as they wanted it. Stupidly, i gave it up.

* Crystal's dress was breaking after the first challenge, and it certainly would have fallen off in the next challenge. This could have made our tribe even worse at challenges, so I offered her one of my two shirts to help her. She didn't give it back and didn't even ask if she could keep it, so I spent the next five days in my sports bra! Not a great sight at 61! You see her in my shirt all her game. All my clothing had been prepared as an item to be used in survival, as I knew what we sent in to them would be used. My shirt had at least 10 survival uses, which I then lost as she did not give it back. 

* Health and hygiene are another big problem on Survivor, and the body odor is really bad. So I washed with ash and washed every part of me swimming in the lake. I especially did not want a UTI, which was common. No one else came into the water, so I had privacy to strip to wash! Taking the leeches off when I got out was no big deal.

How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?

Oh my gosh! It is, of course, the producers' prerogative to make good TV but… I was very sad to see how I was edited. Randy called me an annoying, useless old woman, so nothing I was doing around camp was shown. Bob, who won, was shown making furniture out of wood. I made it out of elephant bones and that was not shown! Randy emailed me the night before our opening night saying he was sorry he said what he did say about me, as he didn't think that at all, but "mean" was his shtick!

Many of my tribe also had comments about be being useless and dead weight. Yes, I certainly wasn't the best in challenges, but neither were many of the others. I just couldn't say what I felt would be hurtful when they and the viewers would hear it.

I was also responsible for not giving production any good "meat" and stories about my tribe in behind-the-scenes interviews. I did not have much good to say about anyone based on what I was seeing and hearing in camp. From the first night on, most of the conversations could not even be filmed due to their content, which totally surprised me, and I am no prude. 

I thought we all sucked as a tribe so couldn't say anything good about how we were, so I just sounded like a stupid Pollyanna saying only good things that were certainly boring and not true in camp and in interviews. I just could not betray my true self with what I could have said that was not particularly nice about anyone. I left second, but with my honor intact. 

Sorry, Survivor, I just couldn't give you anything good for TV, but not for me. I had a few moments wrestling with my moral compass wondering if I could give you something during an interview, but my moral compass won. I was pretty boring to interview.

What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?

There was no adjustment for me. I had been away from home and in very remote places by myself many times, so this was nothing new in that regard. I do, however, find it much easier to find a bush rather than a long line at a ladies' room!

The main adjustment was the secrecy still involved. I got home after being gone for seven weeks under the guise of being away with Doctors Without Borders in Malaysia. Everyone had so many questions about how that was. I basically said it was an amazing experience and opportunity. It was very remote with people of many ages and life experiences, many of whom knew nothing about living on nothing. There were no conveniences and very little food and we were among strangers we had to get to know. I had lost 15 pounds and this was noticed and understood as all I ate was some rice. None of all of that were lies!

When my season was announced, many were thrilled and others said they thought I had been away making a difference in people's lives! What they and I didn't know was that would come later using my Survivor experience.

Survivor: Gabon - Earth's Last Eden
The Fang tribe on 'Survivor: Gabon'
| Credit: Monty Brinton/CBS

Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?

During the game, I was bummed about the tribe we had ended up with but never regretted being there. After the show, when I saw how I was edited and all the comments many of my tribe made about me, I was very sad that people would think that was me and not see so much that was not shown — mostly sad for my family to hear these comments. Again, never regretted it, and especially as I have done so much with the opportunity I had. 

Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your season?

From my season, I am mostly connected with Paloma and Jacquie. I had connected with Dan during my season in the game and in Ponderosa for five weeks (or Loser Lodge, as I call it!). I also visited with him in Boston a few times. I was so very saddened and shocked by the news when he died. So sad.

I had also connected with Randy in camp despite all I heard him say when I saw my edit. He and I would stand aside and shake our heads at our tribe. He has been to Reality Rally several times. I was happy to show him I truly am not useless!! We connect on and off. Others from my season who have come are Sugar, Kelly, Paloma, and Marcus.

However, I have met and connected with hundreds of Survivors and contestants from Big Brother, The Amazing Race, Naked and Afraid, Hell's Kitchen, Chopped, The Biggest Loser and many other reality TV shows. Over 450 have come to Reality Rally. I go to every Survivor finale and other shows who have a gathering to meet the current cast and see many from other seasons of Survivor at these parties. I have over 900 stars in my event database, which I keep completely confidential. There are so many from all these shows I have become good friends with, and that too is one of the gifts from Survivor.

Do you still watch Survivor, and, if so, what's your favorite season you were not on and why?

Yes, I do watch Survivor, as I have always been a fan and they are truly brilliant. Interestingly enough, I haven't watched my whole season as it makes me sad, but I remind myself about the gift I was given. I watched the opening episodes with 400 people at a party my family arranged, but knew what was coming so was very distracted, then watched in the green room at my finale. I will be watching it tonight [June 2021] with my grandkids and their parents, who have been on a quarantine Survivor marathon.

I also watch Survivor and many other reality TV shows so I can connect with them, congratulate them, send them information about Reality Rally. I loved Winners at War, watching how all the players would now see what it felt like to be booted and how they would deal with it!

I also watch a lot of fan sites to connect so they know they can meet reality TV stars at Reality Rally, and I have a special fan VIP package.

Who's one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?

I would have loved to have been on the same tribe as Denise Stapley or Holly Hoffman. They are both the kind of people who hold the same skills and values as I do. There are many I would have liked playing against for the challenge.

If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?

I am not a fan of celebrity contestants. There are so many many amazing possibilities in the people who apply every year who want to play. It always seems that the season sort of becomes all about them. I am also not a fan of returning players on seasons with new contestants. All returning players works, but so often either they or their edit makes them so different from what we remembered.

Finally, would you play again if asked?

 I would presume I might only be asked for Survivor: Geriatric Island! That would actually be pretty cool, as everyone over 70 competing on an even playing field would show a whole different aspect to surviving! Of course, the viewing public would miss all the totally hot young people.

I will be forever grateful for the opportunity, as I think Survivor has been an incredible show with ripples that have gone way beyond even Mark [Burnett] might have thought possible. Production does an amazing job and it is an honor knowing them. Jeff [Probst] and my tribe snuffed out my Survivor flame, but with that, a personal flame of intention was ignited, and no one will ever put out that flame.

 BTW… I blew out my shoulder body surfing in Ponderosa, so I spent the full five weeks there with a totally limp right arm planning what I would do and did once I got home. After 14 months of surgeries and PT, I was ready to roll after doing 14 months of groundwork!

To keep track of our daily Survivor Quarantine Questionnaires and get all the latest updates, check out EW's Survivor hub and follow Dalton Ross on Twitter.

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